CM . . . . Volume XVII Number 41 . . . . June 24, 2011
In the June 5, 2011, edition of The Wall Street Journal, Meghan Cox Gurdon, said, "If books show us the world, teen fiction can be like a hall of fun-house mirrors, constantly reflecting back hideously distorted portrayals of what life is... a careless young reader-or one who seeks out depravity-will find himself surrounded by images not of joy or beauty but of damage, brutality and losses of the most horrendous kinds."
Well, if our latest moral guardian, Ms. Gurdon, is looking for more brutal, horrendous teen fiction to pad out the near-inevitable book-length version of her recent anti-YA fiction editorial, then she'll need to add Saskatchewan-based author Beth Goobie's Born Ugly to her summer reading list.
Here's a novel where our major character, the titular ugly Shirley Rutz, is a raging alcoholic at seventeen, has dog-shit smeared into her face, tries to gouge out the eyes of a near-rapist and is forced into an act of degradation involving a dog-chain by a drug-dealing thug and a corrupt cop.
Shir isn't exactly tending The Secret Garden with young Dickon now, is she?
Born Ugly follows Shir on a gut-wrenching journey that is not exactly one of self-discovery but more one of self-protection. The book marks Shir's journey from victimhood at home, at school and (as she grimly discovers) at her job to a place of defiance and even acceptance. However, by the time the novel climaxes in a pool of blood, it seems likely that critics like Ms. Gaudon would say that this book has made the "darkness too visible."
Of course, many would say making the darkness visible is no crime at all. YA author Frank Portman (King Dork and Andromeda Klein) says, "...There's a place for everything in teen fiction... And it is a very strange thing indeed to imagine...that young readers would be better off if they were restricted to only edifying, helpful, comforting, self-improving reading materials."
And, while no one would accuse Born Ugly of being excessively edifying, there is actually a certain innocence lurking beneath the stormy surface. Not only does one character have a "Why can't we all just get along?" epiphany near the end of the story, but, when Shir is given three joints by a shadowy figure, the sweet boy character, Finlay, gets to momentarily become a character from some ABC After School Special:
Those little flashes of a more old-fashioned sincerity don't undermine the unflinching reality of this book; they just keep it grounded in a world we recognize.
Thanks to Goobie's courageous writing, young readers, ideally those over 14, can follow Shir's journey full of damage, brutality and losses of the most horrendous kinds and still find traces of joy and, yes, beauty.
Jeff Nielsen teaches high school English, Drama and History in Lorette, MB.
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Copyright © the Manitoba Library Association. Reproduction for personal use is permitted only if this copyright notice is maintained. Any other reproduction is prohibited without permission.